Jesse James is one of the most notorious outlaws in American history. Often called “America’s Robin Hood”, the legend of Jesse James begins and ends in Missouri.
Jesse James was born on September 5, 1847 in Clay County Missouri, near the town of Kearney, which is north of Kansas City. Jesse had two full siblings, including brother Frank who later was part of the James Gang, and four half siblings.
When the Civil War began, Missouri was a border state with Confederate sympathies. Frank joined the rebel effort in 1861. Jesse wanted to join the fighting as well, but at the time he was too young. In 1863, when he was 16, Jesse was able to join the cause, fighting with the guerilla group known as Quantrill’s Raiders, led by William Quantrill.
After the war, Jesse and Frank were restless, and were still upset over humiliations their family suffered at the hands of Union soldiers. It’s said that this is why they turned to a life of crime. They joined up with the Younger brothers, whom they had served with during the war.
The first bank robbery attributed to the James Gang occurred in February of 1866 in Liberty Missouri. It was the first successful peacetime bank robbery that occurred in daylight. The gang got away with $60,000.
Over the next 10 years, the James Gang was credited with 12 bank robberies, 7 train robberies, 4 stagecoach robberies and various other crimes. This string of robberies ended in September of 1876, when Jesse and his followers attempted to rob a bank in Northfield, Minnesota. Two members of the gang were killed, the Younger brothers were captured, and Frank and Jesse escaped to Tennessee, living for a while under assumed names.
Wanting to return to the life he knew, Jesse recruited new gang members in 1879. Among these new members were the Ford brothers, Bob and Charlie.
Missouri Governor Crittenden offered a $10,000 reward to anyone who could bring down Jesse James. After riding with Jesse for a few years, the Ford brothers decided to try and collect the reward.
By this time, Jesse was living a peaceful life under the alias of Mr. Howard in St. Joseph Missouri with his family. On April 3, 1882, Bob Ford paid Jesse a visit at his home. When Jesse turned to straighten a crooked picture, Ford shot him in the back of the head, killing him. When the Ford brothers tried to collect the reward, they were instead charged with murder.
There are many historical sites in Missouri with ties to Jesse James.
The family home where Frank and Jesse lived in Kearney, along with the slave cabin, Jesse’s original grave site, and museum of James artifacts, is open year round. Visitors should also check out Jesse’s grave at Mt. Olivet Cemetery in Kearney.
At the Jesse James Bank Museum in Liberty Missouri, visitors are able to walk through the bank office, and look into the vault, which appears as it did in 1866. The tellers were locked in the vault so that the robbers could make their getaway. The calendar clock hanging in the bank office is set to the day and time of the robbery. There is also a room where you can take a glance at letters recounting the bank robbery and other exploits of the James Gang, and numerous pictures of reputed gang members.
An Independence Missouri museum also boasts a connection to the James gang. The 1859 Jail, Marshal’s Home and Museum on Independence Square, once housed Frank James and other members of the James gang. After Jesse was shot in St. Joseph, Frank turned himself in and was kept in this jail until his trial. Visitors to the Jail and Marshal’s Home can see the actual cell that Frank stayed in during his incarceration.
The home in which Jesse was shot still exists in St. Joseph Missouri, but has been moved a few blocks from its original location. The bullet hole is visible high on the wall underneath the sampler that Jesse was straightening when he was shot. Over the years, the bullet hole was enlarged by a multitude of visitors putting their fingers into the space. The bullet hole is now protected by a Plexiglas panel.
More than 125 years have passed since the death of Jesse James, but the legend of the notorious outlaw lives on.